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Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity

Ritual, Visual, and Theological Dimensions

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"So clear and direct it can easily serve as a solid introductory text; at the same time it is so thoroughly researched it will serve scholars of early Christian history, liturgy, and art for years to come. This much-welcome and much-needed volume is not to be missed."--Todd Johnson, Fuller Theological Seminary 
Robin Jensen, a leading scholar of early Christian art and worship, illuminates the theological meaning of baptism by exploring multiple dimensions of the early Christian baptismal rite. She examines five models for understanding baptism, showing how visual images, poetic language, architectural space, and symbolic actions signify and convey the theological meaning of this ritual practice. Considering image and action together, Jensen offers a holistic and integrated understanding of the power of baptism. The book is illustrated with photos and will be useful to professors and students in courses on theology, ritual studies, liturgy, and sacraments as well as to art historians and archaeologists. 
1. Baptism as Cleansing from Sin and Sickness
2. Incorporation into the Community
3. Baptism as Sanctifying and Illuminative
4. Baptism as Death and Regeneration
5. Baptism as the Beginning of the New Creation


"What a gift Robin Jensen has given us in this book, a gift she is uniquely qualified to give. A scholar of Christian liturgy, doctrine, and art, Jensen presents the history of early Christian initiation the way it was experienced--as a unified whole. Integrating image with practice and interpretation, Jensen offers a deep and insightful look into early Christian baptism. Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity is so clear and direct it can easily serve as a solid introductory text; at the same time it is so thoroughly researched it will serve scholars of early Christian history, liturgy, and art for years to come. This much-welcome and much-needed volume is not to be missed."

Todd Johnson, William K. and Delores S. Brehm Associate Professor of Worship, Theology, and the Arts, Fuller Theological Seminary

"To examine how early Christians enacted, experienced, and reflected upon baptism, Jensen utilizes an array of sources for her work: ritual texts, theological treatises, various genres of ancient literature, and most importantly for this study the visual arts and the design and decoration of the ritual space. By drawing together the different types of textual and nontextual evidence, Jensen offers the reader a fuller picture of the sacrament's complexity, particularly as considered through the theological motifs of cleansing, initiation, enlightenment, death and resurrection, and the eschatological restoration of creation. This richly illustrated volume, with many of the images photographed by the author herself, advances our understandings of Christian baptism in antiquity and of the role played by the visual image in expressing and transmitting the meanings of the sacrament."

Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, professor of worship, Boston University

"Through her engaging exploration of the images, language, and symbols of early Christian baptismal rites, Robin Jensen invites readers to consider anew the theological meaning and power of baptism for contemporary worshipers. Jensen's clarity of expression and the striking photos bring to life ancient ritual practices as well as illuminate some of the intriguing peculiarities of early Christian art and worship. Jensen states early in the book her desire to appeal to the reader's imagination. She does just that even as her presentation of baptism through five core motifs offers historical and theological insights about baptism that are valuable for historians and theologians as well as ministry students and pastoral leaders."

Jill Crainshaw, associate professor of ministry studies, Wake Forest Divinity School

"Robin Jensen brings her scholarly acumen and aesthetic sensibility to the interpretation of the principal motifs of the early Christian baptismal ritual. Adding to her impressive writings on the subject of baptism, Jensen addresses this book to a more popular audience but with solid scholarly support. These thematic studies elucidate the effects and meaning of the baptismal liturgy as a sensory, symbolic, and spiritual experience for its recipients."

Everett Ferguson, Distinguished Scholar in Residence, Abilene Christian University

"This volume illumines the multiple biblical metaphors that evoke the meaning of baptism, offers a lucid and richly attested account of early church baptismal practices, and awakens the imagination of readers to engage in contemporary celebrations of baptism with renewed vitality. The book demonstrates that metaphor, architecture, visualization, and liturgy are not mere applications of theology but rather help constitute theology, and it does so in a way that is both accessible to students and instructive for veteran pastors and theological educators."

John D. Witvliet, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary

"True to our social-human natures, we Christians have an insatiable desire to dig into the treasures of our past to discover the world of ancient beliefs and practices behind the images, names, texts, and symbols comprising the biblical-traditional faith we practice today. Robin Jensen has taken the vast and varied array of treasures comprising early Christian baptism and organized them into a theologically enlightening exhibit, leading the reader through a series of 'rooms' through which one may marvel at the rich and varied elements comprising the sacramental whole."

Bruce T. Morrill, SJ, professor of theological studies, Vanderbilt University

"Robin Jensen's attention to art and architecture is an important addition to existing scholarship that focuses primarily on texts. This fresh approach to the topic is carefully researched and amply illustrated. Christians concerned with a renewal of baptismal practice today will find a rich trove of biblical stories and metaphors that inspired and informed early Christian communities."

Ruth A. Meyers, Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics, Church Divinity School of the Pacific

"This new study of baptism may be unique in exploring the early history of Christian initiation not through authors or ideas but symbols. Drawing material and literary evidence together in a deft and unprecedented way, Jensen reveals how early Christians themselves experienced their rite of initiation. The book, like the rite, is rich and diverse; it demonstrates the variety of baptismal images and understandings that could coexist and catalyze one another. Washing, community membership, illumination, rebirth, and new creation are all vividly drawn in word and image. This array of fundamental images and their ritualization provides new insight not only into baptism but also into the ways Christian identity itself was created and expressed."

Andrew McGowan, warden, Trinity College, The University of Melbourne

"Those who are designing baptisteries and fonts and those involved in preparing the elect for baptism will be grateful for this book. It is a brilliant synchronization of rich resources: Scripture, early Christian documents, poetry, and initiatory customs. Its many illustrations show how the languages of art, architecture, and ritual behavior complement and sustain one other. The people who may have experienced these ancient places and liturgies come to life. The book will kindle your senses."

Richard S. Vosko, PhD, Hon. AIA, designer and consultant for sacred spaces; author, God's House Is Our House: Re-imagining the Environment for Worship

The Author

  1. Robin M. Jensen

    Robin M. Jensen

    Robin M. Jensen (PhD, Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary) is Patrick O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. She previously taught at Vanderbilt University. She has authored several books, including Face to Face:...

    Continue reading about Robin M. Jensen


2013 Catholic Press Award Winner

"[An] enjoyable book. . . . This book is very well written and well researched. Jensen does a magnificent job of presenting [the] five core motifs of baptism in early Christian documents and art. Her excellent knowledge of ancient literature is evident and her analysis of art forms very enlightening. I appreciated her thorough survey of what various ancient authors said about these motifs and their understanding of the biblical texts and imageries. Thus the book can serve as a good resource about baptism and provide fresh, new insights into the practice of baptism in the early church. Any student of early church history and theology will appreciate its value. Jensen's explanations of the biblical, theological, and ritualistic foundations of each motif of baptism are very well done."

Denis Fortin,

Review of Biblical Literature

"[Jensen is] one of the most impressive of current scholars in early Christian art. . . . [She] has produced a succession of fine studies of early Christian art in recent years. . . . This latest volume is packed with little/lesser-known information about early Christian baptismal imagery, architecture, and ritual practices."

Larry Hurtado,

"Jensen's new book is a treasure-trove of reflective discussion and suggestive juxtaposition of imagery anciently associated with baptism. . . . Drawing on a wide range of ancient sources, biblical and post-biblical, she does not underscore chronological or regional variations, but seeks to draw out the complexity of the sacrament by exploring its imprint on text, art, and ritual. The volume is richly illustrated in black-and-white. . . . The focus on sensual, liturgical, and theological dimensions of baptismal imagery draws the reader into the mind and heart of early sacramentalism, helping to open up a view from within. . . . Jensen offers a rich fund of intriguing details and connections between art and text, theology and practice. She is a master of pace, combining breadth with detail, vivid vignette with insightful analysis. As enjoyable as it is informative, this is a book that is likely to be treasured by a wide audience, specialist and non-specialist alike."

Jane Heath,

Expository Times

"The study of early Christian worship has tended to focus almost exclusively on the testimony provided by written sources, relatively few though these are, and to neglect the evidence offered by physical remains, and especially artistic representations. What Robin Jensen does in this very valuable work is to marry the one with the other, skillfully juxtaposing the literary images that were used in homilies, catechetical lectures and other works with their counterparts in the rites of initiation themselves and in the mosaics and other visual decoration of the liturgical space. . . . The book is firmly undergirded by her specialist academic knowledge of the subject. . . . This is a very welcome volume."

Paul F. Bradshaw,


"In this engaging and scholarly exploration of baptismal imagery in the first six Christian centuries, Robin Jensen offers a rich portrait of how early Christians practiced, portrayed, and interpreted baptism. . . . Jensen builds on the significant scholarship of the past 50 years regarding the history of baptismal practice and preaching in the early church. Liturgical scholars will appreciate her careful reading and measured conclusions regarding specific debates in the field. . . . However, the book is intended primarily for non-specialists, and requires no prior knowledge of sacramental history. The writing is clear and lively, and provides a wealth of material for anyone wishing to teach, preach, or simply learn more about baptismal imagination in both East and West in the early centuries of Christianity. The visual images are particularly valuable as illustrations of her points."

Martha Moore-Keish,


"Robin Jensen offers a new approach to the complicated study of baptism during the first five centuries. . . . Jensen is rare among scholars of ancient Christianity in bringing astute analysis of Christian visual art to patristic evidence. Her book reveals a deeper significance to the Fathers' texts on baptism because she interprets the contribution of the material evidence, long-forgotten and neglected. . . . The book exhibits the linguistic skills and magisterial tone of a seasoned scholar unencumbered by trendy academic jargon. In command of a wealth of patristic authors, Jensen succeeds in showing the diversity of practices and meanings of baptism in the first centuries."

Vasiliki Limberis,

Catholic Biblical Quarterly

"Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity is an extensive catalogue of early Christian baptismal images with attention both to their historical contexts and to their 'ritual, visual, and theological dimensions.'. . . Jensen draws on her expertise in early Christian art and texts to guide neophytes into an appreciation of these varied dimensions by introducing relevant biblical passages, patristic texts, inscribed sarcophagi, ornamented baptisteries, and other iconography. . . . [This book] is an attractive, accessible, and affordable introduction to key baptismal motifs in early Christianity, and Jensen has thus rendered a great service to students and scholars of early Christian art, liturgy, and theology."

Daniel L. Smith,

Journal of Early Christian Studies

"What makes Jensen's book so helpful is how it looks beyond the textual evidence to survey early baptismal iconography. A manifold and complex understanding of this ancient rite soon emerges--which may disturb those for whom baptism is a simple practice with univocal meaning. . . . Jensen has written an accessible overview of early Christian baptismal imagery. . . . [The book] offers a valuable reminder that baptism was originally a rich and variegated practice."

Bryan Litfin,

Southeastern Theological Review

"This volume is remarkable for its lightly worn erudition and affordable price. It will be much appreciated by scholars and students alike."

Pauline Allen,

Scottish Journal of Theology

"Preachers and catechists frequently seek orienting resources to assist in the subtle art of mystagogical formation. In Robin Jensen's Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity, one discovers such a source. . . . What sets Jensen's work apart is the delicate interweaving of early Christian art, analysis of ancient ritual practice, and mystagogical texts next to one another. . . . Jensen's volume is especially strong when treating the role of specific biblical motifs in Christian art, as related to early Christian rituals of baptism. . . . The preacher and catechist who works his or her way through Jensen's text will discover a rich resource for performing a post-baptismal mystagogy in both a parish and university context. The work would also serve as a very fine introduction to early Christian baptism for pastoral ministers. And lastly, all those charged with church architecture, particularly baptisteries or fonts in parishes would benefit from a careful reading of Jensen's baptismal typologies."

Timothy P. O'Malley,

Church Life: A Journal for the New Evangelization

"[A] lucid introduction with many black/white illustrations by [an] acclaimed expert."

Vigiliae Christianae

"[This] book by the world's leading expert on early Christian worship and art offers a way for more of us to experience baptism as a lifelong conversion to God's wide, long, high, and deep love. . . . Robin Jensen has devoted her life to discovering the rituals, symbols, art, and architecture in early Christians' lived experience of faith. . . . Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity enlivens the biblical, historical, and theological texts about baptism with photographs of art from early century catacombs, stone coffins, mosaics, baptismal fonts, and baptisteries."

Joan Huyser-Honig,

Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (

"[A] very impressive book. . . . What is particularly illuminating about this book is the way in which the author has illustrated the sacramental character of baptism by relating it to the Old Testament anticipation of the sacrament. . . . One of the most important aspects of this very instructive book is that it underlines the many elements in the sacrament. . . . This is a remarkable and valuable book, not only for the illustrations it offers of ancient rites, but also for the accurate accounts it offers of the way in which baptism was addressed by early Christian writers from the New Testament to the fourth century, making great use of Cyril of Jerusalem and John Chrysostom in the east and Ambrose and Augustine in the west."

Anthony Meredith, SJ,

Faith Magazine

"In five straightforward and well-written chapters, Jensen guides the reader through five primary motifs associated with baptism as understood by early Christians. . . . The work is not overburdened by excessive footnoting, rather the ancients freely speak for themselves--a valuable element of this book--as most pages feature citations from or summaries of church fathers. . . . This book serves well as an introduction and sourcebook of the theology and practice of the early church with regard to baptism. Not only does the reader encounter the literary evidence of baptismal thought among early Christians, but also samples the 'imagery' of baptism as well, something missing in most treatments on the topic."

Benjamin J. Snyder,

Trinity Journal

"Scholarship of some breadth and depth is presented accessibly, and this book will be appreciated by readers with some diversity of interests."

Nicholas H. Taylor,

Journal for the Study of the New Testament

"[This] book drew me into its pages. Jensen's knowledge of texts, art, architecture, and liturgy manifested themselves in a finished product with superior organization and highly-readable prose. As a result, reading Baptismal Imagery was a pleasure. . . . Throughout the volume, Jensen deftly employs her knowledge of art, architecture, and ritual to reinforce the understanding of baptism presented in the primary source texts. In so doing, she persuasively presents her case that in the early church, exegesis, theological interpretation, artistic representation, and ritual symbolism all worked together to convey meaning."

Miles S. Mullen II,

The Anxious Bench blog (Patheos)